Holubtsi. Definition: cabbage stuffed with rice and meat. Also known as stuffed cabbage, although that’s always been a bit vague to me. And the literal translation of holubtsi is ‘little doves,’ which of course I think is adorable.
I’m proud to say that this second Ukrainian recipe was more of a success than my beet nalysnyky. That’s likely because I’ve watched my baba and mama make these many times over. We have meatless holubtsi as part of our Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner, and because we all help out with the cooking, I’ve had my practice as well. It’s also really hard to mess up cabbage, rice, onions, and meat, so this is the perfect starter recipe for would-be Ukrainian cooks.
There are many recipes for holubtsi. Some use regular cabbage, but my family prefers Savoy. It’s more delicate and doesn’t leave the house smelling cabbagey. Some also like to bake the rolls in tomato sauce, but my mother insists that the acid in the tomatoes keeps the cabbage from cooking nicely. If you like tomato sauce, add it toward the last 10 minutes or so. Personally, we go without the tomato sauce and top these off with just a bit of sour cream, a creamy dill sauce, or, as on Christmas Eve, a simple mushroom gravy.
Also, some recipes call for more meat. If that’s your preference, just reduce the amount of rice. Also, you may find that some recipes suggest that you mix raw meat with the rice, and that the meat will cook in the oven. We don’t recommend this. It’s not necessarily safe, and if you have any rice mixture left over, it has to be thrown away. And we never like to throw things away. One last thing regarding meat. Some use ground beef, but we prefer pork sausage removed from its casing. But really, you can have either. (And if you don’t eat meat, you can use lamb…tee hee). Seriously, if you don’t eat meat, you can just use more rice, or substitute in a cup of beans, chickpeas, or just about any vegetable.
Without further ado, the recipe:
- 12 leaves from the outer part of a Savoy cabbage, plus 6 leaves from the inner part for lining the pan
- 3 cups of cooked rice (I like using brown rice, but any will do)
- ½ pound of pork sausage, mild or spicy, removed from casing (about 3 links)
- 2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 cup of chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 1 tbsp. of olive oil
Cook rice according to package directions. Meanwhile, brown the sausage over medium heat. Add the onions and stir occasionally until onions are very soft. In a large bowl, mix together the sausage mixture and rice. Add salt and pepper to taste, and allow to cool slightly.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the leaves from the cabbage with a sharp knife. It’s important that you cut the leaves as close to the core as possible, and that the thicker rib be left intact. Take your time and remove each leaf carefully. If one breaks in the area around the rib, set it aside for use with the inner leaves.
Add two inches of water to a large pot and insert a vegetable steamer. Bring water to a boil, and then add the 12 leaves. Cover and steam for three minutes. Remove from pot and pat dry with paper towel, if necessary. Repeat this step for any damaged leaves and the remaining 6 inner leaves.
Drizzle olive oil over a 9” x 12” casserole dish. Then, line the dish with the inner/damaged leaves, being sure to spread the olive oil around with one of the leaves.
To assemble: use a paring knife to shave off part of the leaf’s rib (see pictures below; the objective is to remove just part of the rib so that the leave is more flexible for rolling, but strong enough to hold the rice). Hold the ribbed half of the leaf in your palm, and scoop 1/3 cup of the mixture into your palm. Lay flat and roll up the base of the leaf, then the sides, and roll all the way up. Squeeze the roll as you go along. Place in the dish, in a single layer. Pour chicken stock evenly over the rolls. Cover tightly with tin foil.
Bake for 30 minutes, and serve immediately.
A few final notes: Two or three rolls are enough for a main course, or these make a nice side dish. These can be made ahead and refrigerated, but we don’t recommend freezing them. Leftovers, which will keep in the fridge for 3 days (not scientific, that’s just my rule) are great pan fried in some butter. Enjoy!